How Contrast Makes Any Song More Compelling

3442945580_509dbef8e4_z tanaka juuyoh[12]In the Song Structures 101 series, I’ve explained the basic song sections (verse, chorus, etc.) and a few different ways that these sections can be linked together to create a song.

Whichever form you’re using, contrast is a crucial ingredient that can keep your audience listening all the way through.

Why Contrast?

If your song sounds exactly the same from beginning to end, you run the risk of losing your audience. It’s human nature to tune out predictable sounds; they fade into the background and become  mere white noise. To avoid this, we salt our songs with surprises, irregularities, and variations to keep the audience—and ourselves—interested.

These changes also happen to be very creatively satisfying. For example, let’s say we’re writing a song in strophic form, which uses just one melody over and over. How do we keep that interesting despite repetition?

One possible solution is to add instrumental breaks between some of the verses. During these breaks we could repeat the chord progression, play a short instrumental hook, play an instrumental version of the melody, or let musicians solo.

For a great example of a strophic form that uses instrumental sections beautifully, listen to  Johnny Cash’s classic “Folsom Prison Blues”. Between vocal verses, Johnny’s guitarist plays the vocal melody on his guitar but varies it to make it more interesting. By the time the solo’s done—it’s just long enough—the vocal sounds new all over again.

Another way to make strophic form more interesting is to write longer sections. If each verse is longer and has more variety baked directly into it, it’ll take longer to make us tired of it.

Binary song form has two distinct melodic sections (usually verse and chorus), so it offers us a chance to alternate between two totally different melodies. Here are some of the common contrasts you’ll find in verse/chorus songs:

  • soft/loud: verses are quiet to lure us close; choruses are loud for more impact.
  • low/high: the chorus reaches up into notes higher than the verses.
  • short/long phrases: one section’s melody is shorter than the other.
  • note lengths: one section sustains notes longer than the other.
  • rhyme schemes: different types of song sections get different rhyme schemes.

When composing a bridge, the goal is to go somewhere that none of the song’s sections have gone yet. Often that means modulation into another key or some other drastic change.

This is just scratching the surface. The best way to get ideas for adding contrast to your songs is to get out there and listen closely to songs you admire. How’s the chorus different from the verse? Do verses change or pick up steam in any way as the song progresses? What surprises are built into the recording that keep you listening?

Absolutely any aspect of the music can be changed to create contrast. Experiment!

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